Across the nation, people groped for words. "It exploded," murmured Brian French, a senior at Concord High School in New Hampshire, as the noisy auditorium fell quiet. A classmate, Kathy Gilbert, turned to him and asked, "Is that really where she was?" At the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., scientists turned away from their remarkable new photographs of the distant planet Uranus and stared, stunned, at the telecast from Florida. "We all knew it could happen one day," said one, "but, God, who would have believed it?"
It had happened. In one fiery instant, the nation's complacent attitude toward manned space flight had evaporated at the incredible sight in the skies over Cape Canaveral.
Americans had soared into space 55 times over 25 years, and their safe return came to be taken for granted. An age when most anyone, given a few months' training, could go along for a safe ride seemed imminent. Christa McAuliffe was the pioneer and the vibrant symbol of this amazing new era of space for Everyman. An ebullient high school social-studies teacher from Concord, N.H., she was to be the first ordinary citizen to be shot into space, charged with showing millions of watchful schoolchildren how wonderful it could be. She was bringing every American who had ever been taught by a Mrs. McAuliffe into this new era with her. It was an era that lasted only 73 seconds.
Disbelief turned to horror as the reality became all too clear: McAuliffe and six astronauts had disappeared in an orange- and-white fireball nine miles above the Atlantic Ocean. So too had the space shuttle Challenger, the trusted $1.2 billion workhorse on which they had been riding. Transfixed by the terrible sight of the explosion, Americans watched as it was replayed again and again. And yet again. Communal witnesses to tragedy, they were bound, mostly in silence, by a nightmarish image destined to linger in the nation's shared consciousness.
Then the national mood shifted. America wept. From the White House to farmhouses, Americans joined in mourning their common loss. Flags were lowered to half-staff. Makeshift signs appeared in countless cities: WE SALUTE OUR HEROES. GOD BLESS THEM ALL. President Reagan, in a moving broadcast to the nation that afternoon, paraphrased a sonnet written by John Gillespie Magee, a young American airman killed in World War II: "We will never forget them nor the last time we saw them this morning as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and 'slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God.' "
The preparation for Challenger's tenth journey into space had been painstakingly careful, and for its crew, agonizingly slow. It was an aptly all-American group: two women, a black, a Hawaiian of Japanese descent and three white men. The mission had originally been scheduled to lift off Jan. 20 from NASA's Pad 39-B, which had been refurbished after standing idle since an American crew aboard Apollo 18 left it to dock with a Soviet spacecraft ten years ago. The date slipped to Saturday, Jan. 25, after one of the other three space shuttles, Columbia, ran into delays with a mission that got relatively little notice because such flights had seemed so routine.
When Saturday dawned, Challenger's crew learned that a dust storm had developed across the Atlantic at an emergency landing facility near Dakar, the capital of Senegal. Under NASA's tight safety rules, a shuttle cannot go up unless it has a place to land if something goes wrong before it reaches orbit. Such facilities have never been needed, but every risk had to be minimized. Challenger's crew would have to wait another 24 hours.
On Sunday morning, McAuliffe, who had earlier reassured her parents by telephone that she was "rarin' to go," was set once again. Her parents, along with 18 third-graders from Concord, had flown to the cape to watch the lift-off. Christa's son Scott, 9, was in the class. Her daughter Caroline, 6, was also there but had never quite understood what her mother was doing. While McAuliffe had been in training, Caroline had asked several times by phone, "Mom, are you in space yet?"
McAuliffe and her six fellow crewmates were indeed ready, but the weather was not. A cold front was moving down the Florida peninsula, pushing showers ahead of it. While rain does not hamper takeoffs by airplanes, its impact on a space shuttle at the speeds it reaches shortly after lift-off could damage the heat-resistant tiles that protect the craft's thin skin. Challenger would not blast off even into a drizzle.
Monday looked much better. For the second time, the crew members settled into their couches on the orbiter's two decks, just ahead of Challenger's cargo bay. Commander Dick Scobee and Pilot Michael Smith were strapped into the flight deck; behind them were Judith Resnik, an electrical engineer, and Ronald McNair, a physicist. On the middeck below were Ellison Onizuka, an aerospace engineer; Gregory Jarvis, an electrical engineer; and McAuliffe. Lying on their backs, they could see a bright blue sky ahead of them. The countdown reached T (for takeoff) minus nine minutes--and stayed there for four hours.
This delay proved to be embarrassing. A sticky bolt prevented the removal of an exterior-hatch handle. Lockheed technicians called for a special drill, which took 20 minutes to arrive. When it did, the battery was dead. There were no replacements on hand. After 90 minutes of fiddling, an ordinary hacksaw was used to free the bolt.
But now gusts up to 35 m.p.h. began sweeping across the Kennedy Space Center. Any malfunction immediately after lift-off would call for an "RTLS," return to launch site. Either Scobee or Smith could fire bolts that would release the orbiter from its external fuel tank and two booster rockets. Challenger could then loop swiftly back to Kennedy's landing strip. Nonetheless, the crosswinds were too strong for a sure landing. No such emergency had ever been encountered, but once again NASA took the prudent course: yet another delay.
Waiting out this frustrating postponement at the cape, Ed Corrigan, Christa's father, said wryly, "I would have gotten the hacksaw sooner." Commented his wife Grace: "I would have gotten my nail file." One veteran consultant to NASA was less charitable, asking, "Can you imagine a pad leader permitting an s.o.b. to show up for work with a drill with a dead battery?"
That night, temperatures fell to an unseasonable 27 degrees , but the wind dwindled to 9 m.p.h. On Tuesday, Jan. 28, the clear morning sky formed what glider pilots fondly call "a blue bowl." Even before Challenger's crew, wearing gloves against the chill, crossed the access arm to take their assigned places, NASA's "ice team" had inspected the shuttle and its towering gantry. They decided that there was no danger of any icicles breaking away on lift-off and harming the heat-shield tiles. Just 20 minutes before the scheduled lift-off, they made another check. A Rockwell engineer in California, watching by closed-circuit TV, telephoned the cape to urge a delay because of the ice. But Kennedy Space Center Director Richard Smith, having been advised that there was little risk, permitted the countdown to continue.
"We're at nine minutes and counting," intoned NASA Commentator Hugh Harris over the cape's public address system. His words were also broadcast widely by radio.
Shivering reporters, photographers, schoolchildren and other spectators cheered. The countdown was past the point where it had stopped the day before. The mission designed to show that space belonged to everyone finally seemed ready to launch both its schoolteacher and the dreams of the children participating vicariously from their schools. On Challenger's flight deck, roughly the size of a Boeing 747's, Scobee and Smith continued to run through their elaborate checklists. The orbiter's main computer, supported by four backups, continuously scanned all the data from some 2,000 sensors and data points. They would shut down the entire system in milliseconds if anything was wrong. Nothing was.
"T minus eight minutes and counting."
Thousands of motorists in the cape area, listening to their radios, pulled off highways and faced the ocean. On Challenger's middeck, Onizuka, Jarvis and McAuliffe had nothing to do except wait. At dozens of points around the globe, radar tracking stations had now synchronized their antenna systems with the countdown sequence in Florida.
"T minus seven minutes, 30 seconds and counting."
The walkway was pulled away from Challenger. It could be repositioned within 15 seconds, but in an emergency that could be a fatal interval. The seven occupants were now wedded to their three combustible companions. One was the rust-colored external tank, 154 ft. high, which carried 143,351 gal. of liquid oxygen and 385,265 gal. of liquid hydrogen. Two lines connected the fuels to the orbiter, where they would be mixed at controlled levels to power the spacecraft's engines. The other two companions were the gleaming white boosters, each 149 ft. tall and packed with more than 1.1 million lbs. of solid fuel. Once ignited at lift-off, they would burn uncontrollably until their fuel was spent.
"T minus six minutes and counting."
Pilot Smith was given the order to prestart the auxiliary power units that would operate Challenger's control surfaces and swivel its engine nozzles. The last pints of oxygen were pumped into the external tank.
"T minus four minutes and counting."
Mission Control reminded the flight crew to close the airtight visors on their helmets.
"T minus three minutes and 30 seconds."
Now the shuttle was operating totally on its own internal electrical power system.
"T minus two minutes and 20 seconds," Harris announced. "No unexpected errors reported."
The Harris announcements were coming more frequently. Everything looked good.
"Ninety seconds and counting. The 51-L mission ready to go."
The best news yet: the many delays for Challenger's crew seemed at an end.
"T minus 45 seconds and counting."
The launch platform was about to be flooded by powerful streams of water gushing from six pipes fully 7 ft. in diameter. The purpose: to damp the lift- off sound levels from Challenger's three engines. Otherwise, the acoustic energy alone could damage the craft's underside. The main-engine firing sequence was turned over to computers.
"T minus ten ... nine ... eight ... seven ... six ... We have main- engine start."
Even then the onboard computer, sensing the slightest glitch, could still abort a launch. As it happened, Resnik had been aboard the shuttle Discovery in June 1984 when, four seconds before the spacecraft's three main engines were to ignite for lift-off, the computer noted that the thrust from one of them was not at the proper level. The fuse was immediately pinched.
"Four ... three ... two ... one ... And lift-off. Lift-off of the 25th space shuttle mission. And it has cleared the tower."
Like runners passing a baton, Harris handed off the public narration to Steve Nesbitt, the communicator at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. At the cape, his voice was lost amid the cheers of some 1,000 spectators watching on bleachers some four miles from Pad 39-B. Even at that distance, they could feel the power of the blast-off, which elicits an almost instinctive elation. A graceful sculpture arising from an awesome explosion: it was just as it was supposed to look. Among the relieved viewers were relatives of most of Challenger's crew, including Christa's parents and her husband Steven. At Concord High School, students who had repeatedly gathered in the auditorium finally had a chance to blow their party horns and cheer their teacher's loftiest achievement.
Controllers both at the Cape and in Houston intently monitored Challenger's roaring ascent for a different reason. It is the most critical and most dangerous phase of a space mission. "When you have that much power, you have to respect it," said Flight Director Jay Greene in Houston. "If you get complacent about the launch phase, you don't understand what's going on." In the shuttle, the crew was about to be jammed back into their couches by three times the force of gravity. Their immediate fate was out of their hands.
"Houston, we have roll program," declared Commander Scobee. The flight was only 16 seconds old.
"Roger, roll Challenger," acknowledged Mission Control's Richard Covey in the professional tones of all air controllers. Like a fly clinging to a caterpillar, the shuttle turned gracefully on its back as the tank and the boosters assumed the proper downrange course for entering orbit.
At 35 seconds, Challenger's engines were throttled back to 65% of full power to pass through the zone of high turbulence. Nesbitt announced that the situation was "nominal," as NASA calls it: "Three engines running normally. Three good fuel cells. Three good APUs (auxilliary power units). Velocity 2,257 ft. per second (1,538 m.p.h.). Altitude 4.3 nautical miles. Downrange distance three nautical miles."
"Challenger, go with throttle up," said Covey after 52 seconds of flight. That was not an order; it meant that the engines had automatically reached full power and systems were go. Based on the performance of earlier engines, Challenger actually reached 104% of the older standard. The power-up meant that the shuttle had begun to endure the greatest stress of physical forces in its ascent.
"Roger, go with throttle up," Scobee confirmed. The message came at 70 seconds into Challenger's flight.
NASA's long-range television cameras had been following Challenger's shiny * white rocket plume, recording the graceful roll that had awed the spectators. But then the cameras caught an ominously unfamiliar sight, imperceptible to those below. However different those photographs later looked to viewers of the endless taped replays, NASA analysts said that an orange glow had first flickered just past the center of the orbiter, between the shuttle's belly and the adjacent external tank. This was near the point where the tank is attached to Challenger. Milliseconds later, the fire had flared out and danced upward. Suddenly, there was only a fireball. Piercing shades of orange and yellow and red burst out of a billowing white cloud, engulfing the disintegrating spacecraft.
Snaking wildly out of control, the two boosters emerged from the conflagration, both clearly intact. They veered widely apart, leaving yellow- orange exhaust glows and gleaming white trails behind them. The configuration resembled a giant monster in the sky, its two claws reaching frantically forward.
In Houston, Commentator Nesbitt had kept his eyes on the programmed flight data displayed in front of him, not yet aware of the images of disaster appearing on the TV monitor to his left. He reported what normally would have been the readings from Challenger. "One minute, 15 seconds. Velocity 2,900 feet per second (1,977 m.p.h.). Altitude nine nautical miles. Downrange distance seven nautical miles." To millions watching their own screens, Nesbitt's narration was surreal. They had seen the fireball.
There was a 40-second pause and silence on the screen as viewers stared in baffled horror. Then, his voice still calm, Nesbitt announced, "Flight controllers are looking very carefully at the situation." He added quickly, "Obviously, a major malfunction." His unemotional tone did not change. Communications with the craft had been severed, he continued. "We have no downlink."
On the consoles in front of Nesbitt and the rows of technicians on duty in Houston, a series of S's froze on the monitoring screens. They signaled "static." No data were coming from Challenger. The range safety officer at the cape pressed a button to destroy the two boosters by radio. Although it was first reported that one had been skittering toward coastal population centers, NASA later conceded that both had remained well out to sea. But NASA's range safety officials had to react in seconds. With the destruction of the boosters went the possibility that if retrieved from the water, they & might have provided valuable evidence of what had gone wrong. After another pause of 40 seconds, Nesbitt pronounced the fateful verdict: "We have a report from the flight-dynamics officer that the vehicle has exploded. The flight director confirms that."
"RTLS! RTLS!" yelled former NASA Engineer Jim Mizell, watching from the press stands at the cape. He looked up in vain, and in horror, expecting Challenger to arc away from the unnatural cloudburst and return safely to the landing strip. In the VIP bleachers, only a few experienced viewers immediately sensed the disaster. To the naked eye, the flames were diluted by the distance. Many thought the explosion involved a normal separation of the boosters from the main tank and orbiter. That maneuver was to have occurred at two minutes, seven seconds into the flight.
McAuliffe's mother and father had watched anxiously at the long-awaited lift-off. They appeared more somber than many of the cheering spectators. Ed Corrigan seemed to sense the tragedy first. He reached out to put an arm around his wife. Grace Corrigan's look of puzzlement turned to tears. She cradled her head against her husband's shoulder. Most of the schoolchildren were mystified. But some began sobbing as they saw the reaction of the adults. To those in the stands came a brusque order: "Everybody back on the buses." The lift-off celebration at McAuliffe's high school faded slowly. To Sophomore Marsha Bailey, the TV pyrotechnics looked like "part of the staging" in any space shot. Students began quizzing each other. Then a deep voice in the balcony shouted, "Shut up, everybody, listen!" In the silence, the televised narration of the disaster finally made the outcome all too clear. Three teachers put their arms around each other at the rear of the auditorium as one wept. Classes were canceled and the students dismissed. Principal Charles Foley explained his students' early reaction: "Someone they admired and loved has been taken away. It makes them mad. They have learned that nothing in this life is certain." He ordered the school closed for the following day and set counseling services for any teachers and students who desired it.
Heading home from the cape, some of Concord's third-graders stopped for hamburgers in Orlando. One asked, "Well, if there was an accident, when will they come back?" Concord, nestled by New Hampshire's Merrimack River, is one of the nation's smallest state capitals (pop. 30,400). Linked like the rest of the world by the searing television images, the whole city seemed to stiffen in sorrow. Said Pharmacy Clerk Timothy Shurtleff: "People froze in their tracks." A local radio station began playing mourning music. "It's like part of the family has been killed," said Barbara Underwood, who had been watching at the library. The townspeople were not alone. The vivacious McAuliffe had come to embody each schoolteacher that any American has ever admired.
In Washington, Ronald Reagan was getting ready to brief network-TV correspondents about his State of the Union address, scheduled for that evening. He was startled when several officials involved in the preparations burst into the Oval Office. "There's been a serious incident with the space shuttle," said Vice President George Bush. National Security Adviser John Poindexter echoed what he had just heard on TV: "A major malfunction." Communications Director Pat Buchanan got to the point: "Sir, the shuttle has exploded." Reagan stood up. "How tragic," he said. Then he asked, "Is that the one the schoolteacher was on?" While NASA had proposed sending a private citizen into space, it was the President who had decided that a teacher should be first.
When asked about the State of the Union speech, Reagan replied, "There could be no speech without mentioning this. But you can't stop governing the nation because of a tragedy of this kind. So, yes, one will continue." Leaders on Capitol Hill, however, immediately sensed the incongruity of an upbeat national address at such a time. House Republican Leader Robert Michel telephoned Chief of Staff Donald Regan to urge a delay. Regan phoned House Speaker Tip O'Neill and Senate Majority Leader Robert Dole. Both strongly advised a postponement, and the White House agreed. Spokesman Larry Speakes announced that the address would wait a week, until this Tuesday.
Instead, Reagan delivered a poignant and graceful televised tribute to "the Challenger Seven" late Tuesday afternoon. "They had a hunger to explore the universe and discover its truths," he said. "They wished to serve, and they did--they served all of us." Addressing himself directly to the nation's schoolchildren who had been watching, Reagan added, "I know it's hard to understand that sometimes painful things like this happen. It's all part of the process of exploration and discovery, it's all part of taking a chance and expanding man's horizons."
On Capitol Hill, Speaker O'Neill recessed the House and, shaking his head, could only mutter, "Terrible thing. Terrible thing." He issued a statement expressing his awe of the space pioneers: "We salute those who died performing exploits that people my age grew up reading about in comic books."
Utah Republican Jake Garn, a former Navy pilot and the first civilian official to go into space (aboard the shuttle Discovery last April), could barely speak. "These were my friends," he said. "Mike Smith was my mother hen." Smith had been specifically assigned to help ready Garn for his flight. Garn explained that all the astronauts were fully aware of the risks. "We never talked about it. We always assumed that if it happened, it would happen to somebody else." Recalled Ohio Democrat John Glenn, the first American to orbit the earth: "We used to speculate, the first group of seven, how many of us would be alive after the program." (One of them, Gus Grissom, died in a 1967 fire on a launch pad.) His voice thick, he added, "We always knew there would be a day like this. We're dealing with speeds and powers and complexities we've never dealt with before. This was a day we wish we could kick back forever."
Glenn was among those space experts who had argued that the shuttle program should be devoted solely to research and that only experts who could contribute to that purpose should occupy the limited spots available on the hugely expensive flights. But after a highly successful series of missions in 1983, James Beggs, the NASA administrator, decided that the time was ripe to select a "citizen observer-participant." One clear aim: to build broader public support for the funding of the shuttles.
After Reagan told a group of students and teachers in August 1984 that he wanted a teacher to be first, more than 11,000 applied. NASA officials felt that a key quality for the winner was the ability to articulate the values of space exploration. McAuliffe, who came across as a public relations natural, survived all the screening at Johnson Space Center. At a White House ceremony with the ten finalists last July 19, Bush announced that she was the winner. She would carry only "one body," into space, McAuliffe said happily, but the "ten souls" of all the finalists would be riding with her.
After training for three months, the teacher and her more experienced crewmates were ready for their multiple mission. McAuliffe's task was to ! conduct two 15-minute classes in space as millions of schoolchildren watched via closed-circuit TV. In one, called "The ultimate field trip," she would conduct a tour of the spacecraft, explaining the duties of each crew member and the facilities on board. The second, titled "Where we've been, where we're going, why?," would stress the scientific, commercial and industrial benefits that have been derived from space travel.
The other specialists on Challenger had less publicized but important goals. The mission carried a $100 million NASA satellite, the second in a series designed to fill the communications gaps that now exist between orbiting spacecraft and ground stations. Among the experiments the crew was scheduled to conduct was the deployment of instruments that would measure the ultraviolet spectrum of Halley's comet. Another was to sample radiation within the spacecraft at various orbit points. There was even a student project in which the effect of weightlessness on the development of twelve White Leghorn chicken embryos would be studied.
All those laudable projects vanished, of course, with Challenger's demise. But it was the loss of the seven humans, the realization that shuttle flights involve much more than a wondrous display of mechanical and electronic wizardry, that set off spontaneous expressions of grief across the U.S.
In Atlanta, Tuesday afternoon was sunny, but motorists switched on their car headlights as a tribute. In Los Angeles, the Olympic torch atop the Memorial Coliseum was lighted anew in honor of the space victims. Governor James Thompson of Illinois, before leaving on a trip to Japan, had asked citizens of his state to turn on their porch lights at night during Challenger's mission to express support for the teacher-in-space project. After the tragedy, he telephoned a request that they keep them on Wednesday night as memorials to the fallen heroes. Many other communities paid comparable tributes. The floodlights that normally bathe New York City's Empire State Building in bright colors were darkened. Residents of Harlem petitioned Mayor Ed Koch to name a street after black Astronaut Ronald McNair, whose father once operated an auto shop on East 96th Street. All along the Florida coast, from Jacksonville to Miami, some 20,000 people pointed flashlights skyward on Friday night.
In the communities where the crew members were raised or lived, friends and family members gathered to try to draw meaning from the tragedy. Seven black ( balloons were released at Framingham State College in Massachusetts, where McAuliffe had earned her bachelor of arts degree. A memorial service in the college auditorium on Thursday afternoon was attended by her parents, holding hands in the front row, and more than 1,000 friends, faculty and students. "Christa McAuliffe is infinite because she is in our hearts," said Charles Sposato, a Framingham high school teacher. At Temple Israel in Akron, Governor Richard Celeste of Ohio told Judy Resnik's parents and friends, "She knew she would be at home in space. And she was. And she is." At North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University in Greensboro, where Ron McNair studied physics, the choir sang old spirituals, and the Rev. Jesse Jackson, a fellow alumnus, told the congregation that McNair "belongs to the ages now."
On Saturday the sad sound of bugles blowing taps rolled across the site from which the astronauts had climbed so joyfully, but so briefly, into the air. Employees of the Kennedy Space Center held a memorial service near the stands where the schoolchildren had watched the lift-off. A helicopter then carried a wreath of white chrysanthemums and seven red carnations two miles out to sea and dropped them into the gray water.
Almost immediately, sympathetic Americans moved to create a wide variety of memorial funds. One group of Washington attorneys and bankers set up a trust to provide for the children of the crew members; among those who pledged donations were kindergarten classes in Florida and Maine, two California songwriters and a bank in Hawaii. (The McAuliffe family is already the beneficiary of a $1 million life insurance policy, donated before the accident by a Washington, insurance brokerage company.) The National Education Association began to collect for a program that will seek to honor McAuliffe by financing "pioneering" projects by teachers as well as scholarships to encourage gifted people to enter the profession. And school children around the country began sending nickels and dimes to NASA to help replace the shuttle, which will cost an estimated $2 billion. (NASA says it will decide later how to use the contributions.)
On Capitol Hill, Pennsylvania's Republican Senator Arlen Specter asked President Reagan to name one of the Education Department's buildings after McAuliffe so that "her sacrifice will live forever in the memory of this nation." New York's Democratic Congressman Gary Ackerman introduced legislation to designate Jan. 28 of each year as a permanent National Teacher Recognition Day. Florida's Democratic Congressman Bill Nelson, who, like Garn, had flown on a shuttle, proposed that seven of the newly discovered moons of the planet Uranus each be named for one of Challenger's victims. Colorado Republican William Armstrong went a bit further, asking the Senate to name ten moons, adding the three Apollo astronauts who died in the 1967 launch-pad tragedy as well. Democratic Representative Mickey Leland of Texas urged that the "true heroes" all be posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. At the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum in Washington, a photo of Challenger's crew, draped in black ribbon, was placed beside a 12- ft.-high model of the shuttle. The museum kept running a film, narrated by Walter Cronkite, with scenes of Judy Resnik and Dick Scobee on previous space missions. The documentary is called The Dream Is Alive.
For Jay Schaeffer of Belmont High School in Los Angeles, personal gestures caught the national mood. Schaeffer had been one of the teacher semifinalists in the competition to lift off on Challenger, and despite the disaster, he still yearns for a flight. "I would go today, right now. I wouldn't even go home to change," he said. But he appreciated the students who gently touched his shoulder on Tuesday. "It was an affirmation of life." For students, he explained, "a teacher in space becomes their teacher. Do you know an astronaut? Everyone knows a teacher."
America's agony drew widespread sympathy around the world. In Moscow, a somber TV announcer spoke factually about the disaster as videotapes of the aborted flight were broadcast throughout the Soviet Union. American music, including old Glenn Miller recordings, were broadcast on radio. Soviet Party Chief Mikhail Gorbachev quickly joined the multitude of world leaders who sent condolences to President Reagan. "We partake of your grief at the tragic death of the crew of the space shuttle Challenger," he said.
Surprisingly, the Soviet newspaper Socialist Industry reported that Soviet officials had decided to name two craters on the planet Venus in honor of McAuliffe and Resnik. The Soviets had discovered the craters via space probes. Only the women among the American space victims were selected because the Soviets respect the view in Roman mythology that Venus is the goddess of beauty. Several Soviet cosmonauts sent a collective note of sympathy directly to NASA. Soviet citizens seemed to share the sentiment. "When something like this happens," said a Moscow factory worker named Yelena, "we are neither Russians nor Americans. We all just feel sorry for those who died and for their families."
Only later did the Soviet press begin to carp that capitalist competitiveness had been responsible for undue haste in U.S. space projects. Komsomolskaya Pravda charged that the accident showed the frailty of Reagan's antimissile Star Wars program and asked, "What if lack of caution, a technical defect or sheer chance should bring the world an unforeseen nuclear war?"
At the Vatican, Pope John Paul II asked an audience of thousands to pray for the American astronauts. He said that the tragedy had "provoked deep sorrow in my soul." In Buenos Aires, Cartoonist Dobal used his space in the Clarin to write, "I can't give you a joke because, dear reader, all my space is filled with infinite pain." Japan's public TV extended its popular 45- minute evening news program to an hour and devoted it all to the space accident. The Jerusalem Post noted editorially that "Americans take their risks in front of grandstands and television cameras for all the world to see, while the Soviets prefer to keep their launchings secret until they have been successful." Alan Castro, a former newspaper editor in Hong Kong, expressed a common new awareness of space travel prompted by the accident: "For a while there, we lost sight of the man in our fixation with the machine." Toronto's Globe and Mail pointed to the "harsh lesson that glory and adventure often go hand in hand with danger and death." On a visit to the north of Britain, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher observed, "New knowledge sometimes demands sacrifices of the bravest and the best. I just felt we saw the spirit of America and the spirit of the American people."
Throughout the week, as mourning continued, Coast Guard and NASA officials undertook the grim task of searching for the wreckage of Challenger. Starting some 30 miles off the cape and then spreading out to cover some 6,000 sq. mi., 13 aircraft and more than a dozen recovery vessels joined the search of the conveniently calm Atlantic waters for any evidence that might give clues as to why the spacecraft had exploded.
The debris raining from the sky had kept the searchers away from the possible impact area for nearly an hour. The sight of a slowly drifting parachute had given viewers a fleeting hope of human survival. News reports first indicated that a frogman had chuted into the ocean in a quick look for any survivors. But officials soon corrected both impressions: the falling parachute was one of the two that normally drop the boosters into the sea for salvaging and reuse of its parts. This one held a booster nose cap, which was retrieved two days later.
Despite the obvious devastation of the explosion, searchers began finding surprisingly large parts of the wreckage, the biggest being a 25-ft.- long section of the spacecraft's fuselage. Parts of the shuttle's wings, cabin and cargo-bay door were tentatively identified. Sonar detected a large metal object 140 ft. below the surface, and deep-diving submersibles went down to inspect it. There was speculation that the object might be Challenger's main cabin, although a more likely possibility was that it was one of Challenger's three main engines, which could have fallen in a cluster. But Coast Guard Spokesman Lieut. Commander James Simpson warned that "it could be a shrimp boat from 20 years ago or a Spanish galleon from 300 years ago." By week's end the mystery had not been solved. Recovery workers also turned their attention to a 13-ft.-diameter orange object sighted some 100 miles east of Savannah. They were hoping that it was the cone of the main fuel tank.
The final farewell for America's seven newest heroes came on Friday at the Johnson Space Center near Houston, where they had lived and trained. Among those who gathered there, under gray skies on a grassy quadrangle amid the squat modern buildings, were some 6,000 employees of NASA and its contractors, 90 Senators and Congressmen, and about 200 relatives of Challenger's crew. Awaiting the start of the memorial service, while an Air Force band played funeral hymns, some of the mourners stood quietly in clusters, dabbing their eyes, while others stared sadly into space. A few held aloft small American flags as tears ran down their faces.
The President and Nancy Reagan met the families in a sparsely furnished classroom. Reagan picked up Mike Smith's daughter Erin, 8, who was holding a brown teddy bear that wore a pink apron. After embracing most of the relatives, one by one, he said, "We'll all go out together in a few minutes. I wish there was something I could say to make it easier, but there just aren't any words." Yet when the music stopped and he stepped onto the outdoor ; rostrum, Reagan once again found the right words, and he delivered them eloquently.
"The sacrifice of your loved ones has stirred the soul of our nation, and, through the pain, our hearts have been opened to a profound truth," said the President. "The future is not free; the story of all human progress is one of a struggle against all odds. We learned again that this America was built on heroism and noble sacrifice. It was built by men and women like our seven star voyagers, who answered a call beyond duty." After paying individual tributes to each member of the crew, the President declared, "Dick, Mike, Judy, El, Ron, Greg and Christa--your families and your country mourn your passing. We bid you goodbye, but we will never forget you."
The dignified 30-minute ceremony ended with a display of an aerial equivalent of the riderless horse procession, which was impressed indelibly on a mourning nation at the funeral of John Kennedy 22 years ago. Four T-38 jets--the trainers in which all astronauts prepare for their dangerous duties --roared overhead. It would have been a perfect V formation except that a fifth plane was missing, and another symbolic void was created when one of the jets veered sharply away from the others. As the band played God Bless America, the President and the First Lady went down the line of family members, shaking their hands, offering final words of solace, and hugging little Erin and the other children as they began to cry.